Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

St Alban |
The birth of Christian Britain

St Alban is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 152, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Though the traces of the faith are scanty in Rome’s most northern province, the convert Alban’s martyrdom for trying to save a priest is sound history

St Alban - The birth of Christian Britain

St Alban – The birth of Christian Britain
Some of England’s cities trace their history to Roman settlements and have grown up around early Roman monuments. The city of Bath (above) takes its name from a well-preserved local Roman spa.

No one knows exactly when or how Christianity came to Britain to take its place among many competing religions and pagan cults (including the “elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,” described in Shakespeare’s The Tempest). In fact, we know less about the introduction and spread of Christianity in Britain than in many other parts of the Roman Empire.

Legends abound. The most romantic of them concerns Joseph of Arimathea, the Sanhedrin member whom Mark’s Gospel calls Jesus’ “secret disciple” (“a good and just man,” Luke adds). According to all four Gospels, Joseph begged Pilate’s permission to inter the crucified body of Jesus in his own garden tomb.

Apocryphal sources and some early Christian traditions say that Joseph first cared for Mary, Jesus’ mother, and then set out with a small band of followers carrying the Holy Grail (the chalice used at the Last Supper) and came to Britain. Thirty years after the Crucifixion, Joseph is supposed to have built a rudimentary chapel at what later became Glastonbury Abbey (where he is still the patron saint).

Alas, romance must yield here to two intractable facts: one, the legend did not exist prior to the thirteenth century; two, the story derives more from literary than religious sources.

Thriving Christian communities did exist in Britain in the fourth century, however. Sensational confirmation surfaced in 1975, at Water Newton in Huntingdonshire, when a man discovered, in a cultivated field, a treasure trove of Christian artifacts including dated gold coins in a lidded pottery jar. Among other items in what scholars called the Water Newton Treasure was a silver communion chalice, the earliest discovered in the West.

About 340, a portrait of a young, beardless Christ was incised in a stone mosaic later found in a field at Hinton St. Mary, in Dorset (see page 68). Incidentally, the absence of crosses among these early Christian artifacts has led some scholars to speculate that the cross had not yet come into use as a popular Christian symbol.

But on the whole, there is little evidence of Christians in Britain much before the year 300. True, two early church fathers (Tertullian and Origen) boasted that Christianity extended to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire; in this context, they mention Britannia, but most scholars treat this not as history but hyperbole.

Nor is there evidence of church buildings in Britain before the fifth century. Worshipers met together outside or in private homes. The first organized dioceses are believed to have been in York and Lincoln. Records show that three impoverished British bishops attended the Council of Arles in 314.

Were Christians subject to martyrdom in Roman Britain? This question, too, is open to scholarly debate. According to a British monk named Gildas (c. 490—570), they were. Gildas wrote of “the nine-year persecution by the tyrant Diocletian.”

The most comprehensive history of the early church in Britain was written by an eighth-century British monk, the Venerable Bede. His The History of the English Church and Nation, which drew upon Gildas, was completed in the year 731.

Bede vividly describes the first British martyr, St. Alban (died c. 304), a pagan living in Verulamium (now St. Albans), who gave sanctuary in his home to a priest fleeing the Roman authorities. After observing how the priest prayed night and day, and put his complete confidence in God, Alban became a convert. In Bede’s words, “he forsook the darkness of idolatry and became a wholehearted Christian.”

When the Roman authorities received a tip that Alban was sheltering the priest, soldiers were dispatched to Alban’s home; but Alban exchanged clothes with the priest so that the soldiers arrested Alban instead. He was brought before a judge who happened, at that moment, to be offering sacrifices to pagan gods. The judge commanded Alban to do likewise. Alban refused and declared himself a Christian; the judge ordered him tortured.

“Though subjected to the most cruel tortures, Alban bore them patiently and even joyfully for the Lord’s sake,” Bede writes. The judge then ordered Alban executed. He was taken first to the river to be drowned, but as Alban entered the waters, they parted before him, as once they had parted for Moses.

“On seeing this miracle, Alban’s executioner threw away his sword, fell to the ground, and “earnestly prayed that he might be judged worthy to be put to death with the martyr.” Both men were then taken to a nearby field and beheaded. In a final miraculous twist, Bede records that “the head of the blessed martyr and the executioner’s eyes fell to the ground together.” Thereafter, Alban became “Saint Alban, illustrious Alban, fruitful Britain’s child.”

Also believed to have been martyred at about the same time as Alban were St. Julius and St. Aaron, whose feast days are still observed in South Wales. According to Bede, “They were racked by many kinds of torture and their limbs were indescribably mangled, but when their sufferings were over, their souls were carried to the joys of the heavenly city.”

After the decade of Diocletian’s persecution ended, Bede says Christians emerged from “woods, deserts and secret caverns,” where they had been hiding and continued to proclaim the gospel.

Their lives, indeed the lives of all inhabitants of Roman Britain, were (in Thomas Hobbes’s pithy phrase) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

This is the end of the St Alban category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 152, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about St Alban from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info